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No music moved me more, did more to make me think about life a bit differently, than Jason Isbell's continually revelatory album Southeastern. It cohered as a statement about love, regret, loneliness and joy, and also about what it's like to make vernacular music concerning these themes. It was self-conscious without being self-absorbed.
This past year was also a remarkably dominant one for women making diverse, challenging music. Notable female hit-makers ranged from the New Zealand teenager Lorde to Miley Cyrus (yes, the latter's album Bangerz was actually good, folks). There were superb pop recordings from Tegan and Sara and the sister group HAIM; from indie phenomenon Eleanor Friedberger; from the soul-singing Valerie June; and, most of all, from country-music-making women such as Ashley Monroe, Caitlin Rose, Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark. Clark's 12 Stories possesses the kind of narrative and melodic drive that characterizes the best country music of any era.
Hip-hop yielded some engrossing young wordsmiths this year, with the release of Earl Sweatshirt's Doris, Danny Brown's Old and Chance the Rapper's often brilliant Acid Rap. But the guy to grapple with, for now, remains Kanye West, who continues to be wily, controversial, ridiculous and amazing. I'm still finding new things to listen to in Yeezus.
Among veteran music acts, there were a number of substantial new releases this year. Not resting on their laurels but enriching their legacies were David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Daft Punk and Superchunk. Superchunk released some of the best pop-inflected hard rock this year.
I'd also like to mention my favorite old music this year. Two releases stand out: Colder Than Ice: Arctic Records and the Rise of Philly Soul contains cool music from the 1960s, featuring early work by producer Kenny Gamble and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, among many others. And then there was I Heard the Angels Singing: Electrifying Black Gospel From the Nashboro Label 1951-1983, a staggering anthology of R&B-powered gospel music that works on you like spiritual rock 'n' roll.